Photo: Common Wikipedia
Robots, blockchain and high-tech plankton could soon produce food for British Columbians.
The well-worn line is that economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions.
The 2022 version should be that nine of the last five insisted that inflation was a passing problem, gone before you knew it.
Neither they, nor central bankers, nor political leaders (nor, I suspect, financial columnists) predicted the widening and prolonging of the quagmire of rising costs and prices. The sudden shower that everyone assumed was drifting became a multi-season atmospheric river.
The last time inflation was this high—6.7% nationally, 6% in British Columbia—the water was free and you paid for the music.
Inflation beats your wallet long before income adjustments soften the strike, often even long before your larger personal budgets can be changed. So the agenda is to seek out safer spending havens where supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, climate change, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the slice semi-permanent business due to the pandemic have not had their impact.
Of course, this navigation around the hardest hits on our cost of living is most evident at least three times a day – with our food. And the most economical and stable choice to dodge the inflationary environment is to buy locally, to be the customer at the end of the agricultural sector’s long arms, at the end of the line of the exploitation-oriented technology that improves production, profitability and sustainability.
There are many examples of agritech: indoor farms, plant-based pest control, sensors to monitor crops and tend them more efficiently, and the early advents of robotics and automation.
The larger this starting point becomes, the more it can respond to market demands, the more it assures us of food security. If we are serious about eliminating inflationary impacts on supply chain or efficiency, fundamental farm technology is the logical place to start.
Which is a long, winding, endless way to note the release of a report that most opportunely rattles the cage of change. It comes from Invest Vancouver, the economic development arm of the Metro Vancouver Regional District, which has begun to produce some of the most in-depth research and advocacy on our local economy.
A few months ago, Invest Vancouver released a thoughtful call to action on our cleantech sector. His latest examines agritech, the innovative and modern mechanical end of the food production sector, and it’s a red flag.
While there are statistical compilations of industry contributions, this report is the first to examine competitive strengths and weaknesses and barriers to industry success.
First and foremost, there is usually good news to be optimistic about. The company is largely young, so it is in a growth stage with some agility. It capitalizes on seed funding and tax credits for investors, so it’s not particularly short on resources. And in many ways, it’s emblematic of the region’s innovative ecosystem, suggesting its location is well placed in British Columbia.
But the report begins with a worrying observation by summarizing its recommendations: the industry is fundamentally unstuck. It lacks “an industry-wide support system or networking organization, which leaves limited opportunities for companies to connect with each other, with farmers, with investors, with new markets and with potential customers. One solution: an industry association or support mechanism to build an industry network, possibly even an Agritech Center of Excellence.
Access to capital is often considered easy in this region, but the report notes that farmers do not frequently adopt the technology because they do not have easy access to it. A subsidy program to guide farmers to made-in-BC products and services would lead them to new technologies, the report concludes.
The industry is slowly moving from proof-of-concept to design-to-manufacture stages, which is why Invest Vancouver recommends a craft approach to shared facilities for small-scale manufacturing for inventors, entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. startup to help them scale up faster.
The initial stages of business are clearly a concern in the sector. During their interviews, the researchers found that information on how to start a business, and in particular how to start an agritech business, is hard to come by. And to the extent that we would selfishly want these companies to serve the local market, their export opportunities are also hampered by a lack of practical information.
One of the more innovative suggestions is a business-to-business “matchmaking” service for BC-based companies to find large clients as part of a larger initiative of international trade missions and events.
The effect of these recommendations would be felt locally, but they must emerge for the most part at the provincial or federal level in the creation and refinement of programs, in the direct support of higher government and in measures aimed at accelerating the adoption of technology.
Each of today’s inflationary factors should be a wake-up call for systemic reforms that propel well-being. We know our future will have more weather events, more pandemics, more supply chain disruptions and more labor issues given our demographics.
The mistake would be to assume that with each of these developments, our economy will be resilient and restorative. More likely, now is the time, even in the depths of the inflationary mess on our hands, to invest smartly in ways to mitigate what we expect in the future, not to assume we have what we have in our hands. it takes to withstand whatever it brings. •
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor of BIV and vice president, editorial, of Glacier Media. This column first appeared on the Business in Vancouver website.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.